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Don't Devalue Exchange Programs in Immigration Reform | Commentary

Comprehensive immigration reform is a large and complex task. As legislation makes its way through the necessary processes, all sorts of compromises will be made in order to end up with a final product that most can agree on. Along the way, however, it will be important to remain mindful of those things that add value to the nation.

While most of the current attention is focused on fixing what is broken with the U.S. immigration system, there are any number of existing elements that work well. One of them is the J-1 Exchange Visitor program. For more than 50 years, millions of young adult cultural visitors from around the globe have participated in America’s Exchange Visitors Program, and have returned to their home countries with a greater appreciation for, and understanding of, American culture and values.

Many of these high-caliber participants are future politicians, journalists and professors, and large numbers of them come from countries of strategic importance to the United States such as Brazil, China, India, Russia and Turkey. In a very real sense, the Exchange Visitors Program has been a key component of U.S. public diplomacy.

Language in the current Senate draft of the immigration reform bill would treat cultural exchange programs (like international internships, au pair programs, camp counselors and Summer Work Travel programs) in the same way as non-immigrant labor programs (like migrant farm workers, “Deadliest Catch” fishing boat crews and construction crews).

It also subjects every participating entity in the cultural exchange process to such onerous, duplicative additional participation and reporting requirements as to raise the cost of participation to untenable levels and will lead to wholesale host abandonment of these public diplomacy programs. This seems at odds with the larger sentiment of immigration reform legislation, which is to strip away layers of bureaucracy and cumbersome regulation rather than to augment them.

Altering J-1 visas in this manner also creates confusion for the U.S. officials charged with managing this program, making their jobs more difficult at the same time that they are being asked to absorb even larger changes to the administration of immigration law. It also gives non-U.S. citizen Exchange Visitors full access to the U.S. courts for civil suits, including jury trials, access to free legal services and class action suits, with civil fines and penalties up to $500,000 assessed against these U.S. cultural exchange organizations. It also requires the international partner agencies to subject themselves to the jurisdiction of these U.S. courts, in addition to their existing liability in their home countries. While this will be a boon for trial lawyers, it will only add complexity and unnecessary extra regulation to the U.S. immigration system and increase the burden to the domestic legal system in the United States. The specter of litigation alone could cause U.S. citizens and U.S. institutions, and especially the critical foreign partner institutions, to turn away from the program in large numbers and cut participation in half.

Hence the challenge of restructuring a body of law as lengthy and complex as the U.S. tax code. As the debate about comprehensive immigration reform continues and the body politic considers what should be in and what should be out, we should be careful to preserve those existing programs and policies that actually add value.

The J-1 Exchange Visitor Program is one.

Michael J. Petrucelli is the founder and executive chairman of Clearpath, an online immigration startup. He was acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services after previously serving as the agency’s deputy director for two years. Prior to USCIS, Petrucelli was senior vice president for operations and chief of staff of the Export-Import Bank of the United States.

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